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Growing a biotech industry in Southwest Washington

March 18,2016 | By Vancouver Business Journal
To attract and grow startup businesses in the life sciences and biotech arena, experts say certain key elements are needed: nearby academic research, available venture capital, mentoring support and a business climate that helps translate good ideas into money-making success.

Local economic development advocates say Southwest Washington and the greater Portland metro area have what it takes to nurture an emerging life sciences cluster.

Those efforts received a boost in Vancouver when AbSci LLC recently announced that it would relocate from Portland’s Bioscience Incubator into lab space offered at the Port of Vancouver’s Terminal 1 on the waterfront.

The company now has employees on site where the port is converting former Red Lion at the Quay hotel rooms into “wet lab” units for AbSci.

“We’re giving them an empty palette at a quarter of the cost,” said Katy Brooks, port director of economic development. “We see this as a win for the region since AbSci was considering a move to San Diego until our space became an option.”

The port is jumping on the opportunity to support a burgeoning life science sector linked to the region’s robust healthcare industry, world-class medical research institutions and attractive business climate, Brooks said.

“We’re really talking about a regional approach,” Brooks said. “The AbSci move gives us a toehold here in Southwest Washington.”

Life sciences is an umbrella label for the field of study of living organisms – plants, animals, human beings, microorganisms and the related technologies that support the research. In Washington and Oregon, sub-sectors include biotech and biopharmaceutical firms, immunotherapy, medical technology and equipment, fish science, bio agriculture and digital health and IT businesses.

According to Life Sciences Washington, a 674-member Seattle-based nonprofit trade association, these enterprises support 36,300 direct jobs that pay an average of $86,400 in annual wages.

Last year, life science industry transactions reached $1.2 billion around the state, up from just $1.55 billion in 2014, said Dennis Kroft, association vice president for marketing and membership.

“We need the kind of space the Port of Vancouver is providing,” Kroft said. “There’s not a lot of lab space hanging around in the region.”

Seattle and Spokane seem to have caught the life science wave. Now the Portland-Vancouver area is building on the same infrastructure, Brooks said.

That infrastructure includes the Knight Cancer Research Center backed by $1 billion in research funding, Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), WSU Vancouver, Clark College with its strong nursing program and even Henrietta Lacks Health and Bioscience high school in Vancouver’s Evergreen School District.

“We have the opportunity to develop regionally with a number of assets, research centers, pharmaceutical companies and other life science companies,” Brooks said.

Ultimately, she said, the port would like to build a new building at Terminal 1 to accommodate AbSci as well as attract other similar business. AbSci expects to have 50 employees by 2020.

Getting a handle on growth

Among the 28 life science-related businesses in Clark County, Felix Instruments in Camas is an example of how the industry evolves. Eight years ago, Leonard Felix bought CID Bio-Science, which successfully fabricates and sells an ag-related “leaf meter” for use in research.

Recently, Felix hosted an open house for his new venture, Felix Instruments – Applied Food Science, a food microbiology business that is building and selling an innovative portable tool for testing the ripeness and storage longevity of farm products such as oranges.

Felix thinks the Columbia River Economic Development Council and the port have a “good handle” on how to attract bio-tech and life science candidates to the area.

“Lab space is important,” Felix said. “Having ready-to-go lab space, getting support for lab space eliminates a lot of hassles.”

That is what the Port of Vancouver set out to do with the conversion of former hotel rooms to lab space, Brooks said. Each room already has plumbing and separate HVAC hook-up, ideal for “wet lab” research and production. The port is spending approximately $200,000 on the renovation. Brooks said she expects AbSci to be working in the site by April.

The company, founded in 2011, will occupy 6,200 square feet of the former hotel space. Its expected rapid growth is tied to a proprietary SoluPro system that allows for efficient and cost-effect protein production attractive to the pharmaceutical industry.

Dennis Kroft, Life Science Washington vice president for marketing and membership, said his organization supported the AbSci relocation with a letter of endorsement and a pledge to provide ongoing support.

“The port’s move to set aside this space is a big step,” Kroft said. “There’s not a lot of lab space hanging around. Both Washington and Oregon need that kind of space.”

According to Kroft, there are 92 cities around the state with life science employers. 32 of those employers are in Clark County as compared to 40 similar businesses in the Spokane area and 368 in Seattle.

Economic growth potential

Mike Bomar, president of the Columbia River Economic Development Council, sees life science and global health with “enormous growth potential.”

“Industries within the life sciences sector are a natural target for recruitment and expansion,” Bomar said. “With our strategic location and combined assets of our partners, we believe our region is uniquely well-positioned to become a premier biotech and life sciences hub.”

In June, port representatives, the CREDC and the Washington state Department of Commerce will attend BIO International in San Francisco, among the largest biotech gatherings in the nation.

“We will be reaching out to those companies that may be a good fit for our region,” Bomar said. “Our goal is to grow a local life sciences cluster. It will require a collaborative effort on numerous fronts – at local, regional and state levels.”

Maura Little, director of economic development for Washington’s Department of Commerce Life Sciences sector, said Vancouver is well positioned to capitalize on the potential growth.

“The close proximity to OHSU and Portland’s metropolitan hub coupled with a great business climate in Vancouver, will help fuel continued expansion,” she said.

Little said Washington is well known for its global health sector – a sector that grew at four times the rate of state employment between 2009 and 2013. Going forward, job growth is expected to average 8 percent a year, reports the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Kroft said his association has 400 unfilled life science job openings on its webpage, this month. That’s up from 250 a year ago.

With high job growth and above average wages, life science employment seems like an attractive way to diversify the economy and build on the strengths of the region’s highly skilled, well-educated workforce, experts say.

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